Sometime in the 1960s my father, who worked at the registry of merchant shipping near London, laid out on the breakfast table four or five British ships’ logbooks for me to look at. He had quietly borrowed them for me, a keen reader of English novels, to see the signatures in entries made during the 1880s by a young merchant seaman, Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski.
I have carried this memory with me for over half a century and still feel profoundly moved when I recollect it, however imperfectly. What I remember is that Joseph Conrad’s signature gradually changed from one entry to the next from Konrad Korzeniowski to Joseph Conrad, as he became increasingly confident of his mastery of English, a language he did not learn until his career at sea. He became one of our greatest novelists in English, and a folio edition of his entire works graces my bookshelf today. As a boy, I loved his graphic accounts of maritime adventure, laced with political overtones derived from his unusual background and culture. I am about to revisit them in my retirement.
I like to think that my enthusiasm for Conrad arose partly from my childhood memory of the Polish role in what is known as the Battle of Britain. When the Second World War started I was a 5 year-old living at Northolt, one of the key take-off sites for defenders in the arial combats that raged over London. As bombs rained on us, killing neighbours and destroying houses around us, my parents spoke of the exceedingly courageous young Polish pilots who protected us. I still remember when the Polish war memorial was later established at Northolt aerodrome.
My wife Mavis and I remember our Polish friends from the past for their warmth and hospitality. We were once offered a British Council posting at the University of Krakow, which was extremely tempting, but pointed in the wrong direction careerwise. Since that time we have often regretted that we did not take up the offer, since today we should certainly have been Polish speakers, as would our two infant children of that era. Later, working for the UK Foreign Office I was briefly involved in cooperation between British and Polish publishers after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, with benefit to both sides.
Two weeks ago we heard an influential farmer near our home speaking on Radio 4 with huge enthusiasm about his 20-strong Polish workforce, how conscientious and exemplary they are, and how they work hard together cooperatively and seriously. He underlined their huge value-added contribution to our national life, the loss of which would be deeply regretted by many neighbours, employers, fellow workers and others if we were to lose it.
This essay is to say to readers that many of us are acutely conscious of the important contribution which our Polish friends have made to our nation’s development and culture. It is deeply regrettable that recent government policies here have created a swathe of people in parts of this country who have been persuaded that these failures of government are somehow the fault of immigrants I think we are all too aware that this has happened before in another time and another place, with disastrous consequences for all of us. For me Poland has always been deeply associated with friendship and culture.
It represents a widening of the horizons of our decreasingly important small island. I am among many British admirers of that wider experience of the world and political ideas that Polish and many other immigrants have brought to us. Please stick with us, and do not be deterred by ignorance and prejudice. Never have the population of these islands been more in need of the broader perspectives and vision that others bring to us. We need to go on learning the lessons of history in a wider world.
Roger Iredale, Emeritus Professor of International Education, University of Manchester